Gary Cunningham

For over 20 years, Gary Cunningham has served as the top leader of philanthropic, health care, public policy and educational organizations. Currently, Gary serves as vice president, chief program officer for the Northwest Area Foundation. He is responsible for carrying out the foundation's mission to support efforts by the people, organizations and communities to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable prosperity.

Closing the Five Educational Achievement Gaps

Posted by: Gary Cunningham under Society, Education and literacy, Government, Politics Updated: March 25, 2012 - 8:37 PM
A Community in Our Crisis: Closing the Five Educational Achievement Gaps
Addressing the achievement gap is one of the most pressing and critical issues facing the State of Minnesota. A seminal 2009 report entitled, Minnesota’s Future: World-class Schools, World-class Jobs prepared by Itasca Project and Minnesota Business Partnership states, “While in aggregate Minnesota may perform well relative to other
 states, there are significant performance gaps in
 the state between ethnic
 groups, low income students, and English language learners. 
In fact, Minnesota has some of the largest performance gaps in the country. This is particularly concerning for the workforce given the overall population is expected to decline in school age brackets, while the demographic groups with lower achievement are expected to grow.”
Much has been written about the elusive achievement gap between students of color (particularly black students) and white students. There are as many theories that attempt to explain this persistent and ever-present gap. According to Roland G. Fryer, Jr. Department of Economics and EdLabs, Harvard University, “The lack of progress in closing the racial achievement gap has led some to assert that we need more supportive communities and neighborhoods; stronger, more intact families and engaged parents; or less income inequality to eliminate racial disparities in achievement. Others have interpreted the lack of progress as prima facie evidence that genetics or other cultural dysfunctions are holding blacks back, and argue that these problems cannot be solved by government interventions. A third group argues that the presence of labor unions makes true reform impossible, dismissing the current school-based interventions as being tantamount to "fiddling while Rome burns."
Another theory postulated by Myron Orfield of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race and Poverty (IRP) is that racial segregation in housing and neighborhood schools exacerbates and accelerates the racial educational achievement gap. According to Orfield, “Integrated schools boost academic achievement, attainment, and expectations; improve opportunities for students of color, and generate valuable social benefits. Integrated schools also enhance the cultural competence of white students and prepare them for a more diverse workplace and society.”  
The IRP's GPS maps, graphs and charts on housing and educational segregation in the Twin Cities are compelling. They show without a doubt that the Twin Cities is a highly segregated community and growing more so. However, the prescription IRP puts forth has met stiff resistance, particularly from local suburban school systems as witnessed by recent bounty disputes in Eden Prairie, Bloomington, Edina and other places.  In fact, even in Minneapolis, a city known for its liberalism, the integration approach is also highly divisive and controversial, as witnessed when the Minneapolis Public Schools attempted to implement what it called the "Changing School Options" proposal in 2009.
Unfortunately, the political will at the federal, state and local levels to implement an integration approach most likely will not happen in our lifetimes. One need not be a social scientist to reach this prognostication; all one has to do is look at what has happened with integration in public education in the fifty plus years after the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision.
In effect, real educational reform to address the achievement gap, particularly in Minnesota, continues to be held hostage to vested interests, local nimbyism, and outmoded social ideologies, regardless of the political party in power. Everyone, regardless of his or her political persuasion, agrees that something fundamental needs to change if we are to change the trajectory of our current dilemma. However, not many are willing to step out of line with the party orthodoxy or their comfort zones to do what is necessary to make this so. In the meantime, another generation of our children is undereducated, underemployed and in poverty.
A different bipartisan approach is needed if we are to make progress on this important issue.
A new report entitled A Crisis in Our Community: Closing the Five Achievement Gaps written by Jeffrey A. Hassan, Esq. and Eric Mahmoud and published by the Twin Cities African American Leadership Forum’s Education and Life Long Learning Work Group (AALF/ELL), may be able to move us beyond our educational reform paralysis and our parochial stalemate. This report unravels and demystifies what needs to be done. It provides a road map based upon clear and irrefutable evidence of what works as demonstrated in practices at Harvest Preparatory School and other high performing schools throughout the country.
According to the report:
“The African American Leadership Forum/Education and Life-Long Learning Work Group (AALF/ELL) believes that the achievement gap for African American children is actually comprised of 5 different gaps: preparation, belief, time, teaching, and leadership.
The Preparation Gap. The achievement gap begins before children are old enough to enter school. Upon entering kindergarten, they show differences in personal and social development, in language and literacy, in mathematical thinking, as well as in the arts and physical development. Children in households with lower family income, and children whose parents had less education, tend to have lower school-readiness ratings. But school-readiness is not simply a matter of academics. It involves a child’s home environment, economic status, emotional and social development, health, and cultural identity. All are related to achievement in school.
To resolve this issue, AALF/ELL believes that four changes are needed: access to high-quality, certified, early childhood education must be made available; family support systems must be ensured; community resources and social services must be brought into schools; and parents must get education and training.
The Belief Gap. The beliefs and expectations of students, parents, teachers and the community all contribute to the achievement gap: students, parents, teachers and the community do not believe it can be closed until they see it done. Once the gap is closed in one school district, others will follow. Additionally, teachers’ expectations strongly influence students’ effort and performance. High expectations or pressure to learn ranks highly among school- level factors that impact student achievement.
To resolve this issue, AALF/ELL believes there must be a laser-like focus on student achievement and African American students must be offered more rigorous curriculum choices. Success stories must be widely publicized to dispel the myth that our children cannot succeed.
The Time Gap. Many of our children have fallen behind grade level. To successfully address this shortfall will take time; more time focused on learning during the school day, a longer school day and school year are necessary. This gap cannot be reduced without adequate time for teaching and learning. After- school and summer programming are also critical components of closing the time gap.
The Teaching Gap. The single most important factor contributing to student success is teaching excellence. Good teachers make good schools. Students taught by several effective teachers in a row soar, no matter what their family backgrounds, while students taught by just two ineffective teachers in a row rarely recover. Strong teaching is especially critical for children at risk, and highly effective teachers are most critical to those furthest behind.
To resolve this issue, AALF/ELL believes that: The best teachers must be placed where the greatest need exists; educators must be culturally competent; effective teacher evaluation and coaching must be implemented; and traditional teaching preparation must be transformed.
The Leadership Gap. The impact of principals and school leaders on student outcomes is second only to that of teachers. School districts that have been most effective in closing the achievement gap are led by strong and effective district superintendents and school principals. Such leaders have applied proven and effective models of academic success.
Closing the Leadership Gap necessitates the evaluation and professional development of school leaders to ensure they are familiar with and implementing best practices for success. Principals must also be able to choose their teachers.
Summary. AALF/ELL believes that a cross-sector approach to leadership is needed, one that brings together leaders in education, business, government, philanthropy and the community, and unifies the entire educational continuum from cradle to career. Our community cannot afford to squander our most precious regional resource — the growth potential of our children of color. It is morally wrong, economically destructive and socially imprudent. It is time that we come together and eliminate the achievement gap in our great state once and for all — the economic vitality of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area depends on it.”
Gary Cunningham is co-chair of the Twin Cities African American Leadership Forum
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